Grammatical Category

The term "grammatical category" refers to specific properties of a word that can cause that word and/or a related word to change in form for grammatical reasons (ensuring agreement between words).

For example, the word "boy" is a noun. Nouns have a grammatical category called "number". The values of number are singular (one) and plural (two or more).

  1. The boy is playing.
  2. The boys are playing.

In sentence 1, "boy" is in its basic form, giving its "number" the value of singular. There is one boy and the related auxiliary verb "to be" is in the singular form (is).

In sentence 2, the form of "boy" has changed to "boys", giving its "number" the value of plural. There is more than one boy and the related "to be" is in the plural form (are).

In the above example, the "number" of "boy" influences the form of boy, and also influences the form of a related word (be). "Number" is a "grammatical category".

English has over twenty grammatical categories. Below we list the most common ones for English learners and summarise their main features.


Number is a property of nouns and pronouns, and indicates quantity. Number has two values:

word type number
singular plural
noun boy boys
pronoun I we


Case is a property of pronouns and nouns, and expresses their relationship to the rest of the sentence. Case has three values (two of which do not apply to nouns):

word type case
subjective objective possessive
pronoun I me mine
noun     boy's


Natural gender is a property of pronouns, and differentiates the sexes. Natural gender has three values:

word type gender
masculine feminine neuter
pronoun he/him/his she/her/hers it/its

Note that Old English had "grammatical gender" where words themselves had gender. Remnants of this are found in "natural gender", which is based on the sex of people rather than the gender of words.


Person is a property of pronouns, and differentiates participants in a conversation. Person has three values:

word type person
1st 2nd 3rd
pronoun I/me
you he/him, she/her, it


Tense is a property of verbs, and most closely corresponds with location in time. Tense has two values:

word type tense
past present
verb was

Note that "future tense" is not shown here because strictly-speaking it is not a tense but a structure to talk about the future (after now).


Aspect is a property of verbs, and expresses our view of the time structure of an activity or state. Aspect has three values:

word type aspect
simple continuous perfect
verb they work they are working they have worked


Mood is a property of verbs, and relates to the speaker's feelings about the reality of what he is saying. Mood has three values:

word type mood
indicative imperative subjunctive
verb James stood up. Stand up! We insist that he stand.
Is it quiet enough? Be quiet! It is essential that you be quiet.


Voice is a property of transitive verbs*, and expresses the relationship of the subject to the action. Voice has two values:

word type voice
active passive
transitive verb The cat ate the mouse. The mouse was eaten by the cat.

*A transitive verb can take a direct object. (An intransitive verb does not take a direct object.)


Degree is a property of gradable adjectives and adverbs, and indicates amount. Degree has three values:

word type degree
positive comparative superlative
gradable adjective happy happier the happiest
gradable adverb carefully more carefully the most carefully

Contributor: Josef Essberger